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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 45

"She can be a . . . but . . . loves you, Lee." Robert walked a few steps toward the street. Lee joined him, and their voices came through clear as a bell.

  "I know it, but she can't help herself. The other night when me n Rina's goin at it, she hollers at us from the foldout. She's sleeping in the livin room, you know. 'Take it easy on that, you two,' she hollers, 'it's too soon for another one. Wait until you can pay for the one you've got.'"

  "I know it. She can be hard."

  "She keeps buyin things, brother. Says they're for Rina, but shoves em up into my face." Lee laughed and walked back to the Bel Air. This time it was his eyes that skated across 2706, and it took all I had to hold still behind the drapes. And to hold the bowl still, too.

  Robert joined him. They leaned on the back bumper, two men in clean blue shirts and workingmen's pants. Lee wore a tie, which he now pulled down.

  "Listen to this. Ma goes to Leonard Brothers and comes back with all these clothes for Rina. She drags out a pair of shorts that are as long as bloomers, only paisley. 'Look, Reenie, aren't they purty?' she says." Lee's imitation of his mother's accent was savage.

  "What'd Rina say?" Robert was smiling.

  "She says, 'No, Mamochka, no, I thank but I no like, I no like. I like this way.' Then she puts her hand on her leg." Lee put the side of his hand on his own, about halfway up the thigh.

  Robert's smile widened to a grin. "Bet Ma liked that."

  "She says, 'Marina, shorts like that are for young girls who parade themselves on the streets looking for boyfriends, not for married women.' You're not to tell her where we are, brother. You are not. We got that straight?"

  Robert didn't say anything for a few seconds. Perhaps he was remembering a cold day in November of 1960. His mama trotting after him along West Seventh, calling out, "Stop, Robert, don't walk so fast, I'm not done with you!" And although Al's notes said nothing on the subject, I doubted if she was done with Lee, either. After all, Lee was the son she really cared about. The baby of the family. The one who slept in the same bed with her until he was eleven. The one who needed regular checking to see if he'd started getting hair around his balls yet. Those things were in Al's notes. Next to them, in the margin, were two words you'd not ordinarily expect from a short-order cook: hysterical fixation.

  "We got it straight, Lee, but this ain't a big town. She'll find you."

  "I'll send her packing if she does. You can count on that."

  They got into the Bel Air and drove away. The FOR RENT sign was gone from the porch railing. Lee and Marina's new landlord had taken it with him when he went.

  I walked to the hardware store, bought a roll of friction tape, and covered the Tupperware bowl with it, outside and inside. On the whole, I thought it had been a good day, but I had entered the danger zone. And I knew it.

  4

  On August 10, around five in the afternoon, the Bel Air reappeared, this time pulling a small wooden trailer. It took Lee and Robert less than ten minutes to carry all of the Oswalds' worldly goods into the new manse (being careful to avoid the loose porch board, which had still not been fixed). During the moving-in process, Marina stood on the crabgrassy lawn with June in her arms, looking at her new home with an expression of dismay that needed no translation.

  This time all three of the jump-rope girls appeared, two walking, the other pushing her scooter. They demanded to see the baby, and Marina complied with a smile.

  "What's her name?" one of the girls asked.

  "June," Marina said.

  Then they all jumped in. "How old is she? Can she talk? Why don't she laugh? Does she have a dolly?"

  Marina shook her head. She was still smiling. "Sorry, I no spik."

  The three girls pelted off, yelling "I no spik, I no spik!" One of the surviving Mercedes Street chickens flew out of their way, squawking. Marina watched them go, her smile fading.

  Lee came out on the lawn to join her. He was stripped to the waist, sweating hard. His skin was fishbelly white. His arms were thin and slack. He put an arm around her waist, then bent and kissed June. I thought Marina might point at the house and say no like, I no like--she had that much English down--but she only handed Lee the baby and climbed to the porch, tottering for a moment on the loose step, then catching her balance. It occurred to me that Sadie probably would have gone sprawling, then limped on a swollen ankle for the next ten days.

  It also occurred to me that Marina was as anxious to get away from Marguerite as her husband was.

  5

  The tenth was a Friday. On Monday, about two hours after Lee had left for another day of putting together aluminum screen doors, a mud-colored station wagon pulled up to the curb in front of 2703. Marguerite Oswald was out on the passenger side almost before it stopped rolling. Today the red kerchief had been replaced by a white one with black polka dots, but the nurse's shoes were the same, and so was the look of dissatisfied pugnacity. She had found them, just as Robert had said she would.

  Hound of heaven, I thought. Hound of heaven.

  I was looking out through the crack between the drapes, but saw no point in powering up the mike. This was a story that needed no soundtrack.

  The friend who had driven her--a portly gal--struggled out from behind the wheel and fanned the neck of her dress. The day was already another scorcher, but Marguerite cared nothing for that. She hustled her chauffeur around to the trunk of the station wagon. Inside was a high chair and a bag of groceries. Marguerite took the former; her friend hoisted the latter.

  The jump-rope girl with the scooter came riding up, but Marguerite gave her short shrift. I heard "Scat, child!" and the jump-rope girl rode away with her lower lip pooched out.

  Marguerite marched up the bald rut that served as a front walk. While she was eyeing the loose step, Marina came out. She was wearing a smock top and the kind of shorts Mrs. Oswald didn't approve of for married women. I wasn't surprised that Marina liked them. She had terrific legs. Her expression was one of startled alarm, and I didn't need my makeshift amplifier to hear her.

  "No, Mamochka--Mamochka, no! Lee say no! Lee say no! Lee say--" Then a quick rattle of Russian as Marina expressed what her husband had said in the only way she could.

  Marguerite Oswald was one of those Americans who believe foreigners are sure to understand you if you just speak slowly . . . and very LOUDLY.

  "Yes . . . Lee . . . has . . . his . . . PRIDE!" she bugled. She climbed to the porch (deftly avoiding the bad step) and spoke directly into her daughter-in-law's startled face. "Nothing . . . wrong . . . with that . . . but he can't . . . let . . . my GRANDDAUGHTER . . . pay . . . the PRICE!"

  She was beefy. Marina was willowy. "Mamochka" steamed inside without a second look. This was followed by a moment of silence, then a longshoreman's bellow.

  "Where's that little CUTIE of mine?"

  Deep in the house, probably in Rosette's old bedroom, June began to wail.

  The woman who had driven Marguerite gave Marina a tentative smile, then went inside with the bag of groceries.

  6

  Lee came walking down Mercedes Street from the bus stop at five-thirty, banging a black dinnerbucket against one thigh. He mounted the steps, forgetting the bad one. It shifted; he tottered, dropped his dinnerbucket, then bent to pick it up.

  That'll improve his mood, I thought.

  He went in. I watched him cross the living room and put his dinnerbucket on the kitchen counter. He turned and saw the new high chair. He obviously knew his ma's modus operandi, because next he opened the rusty refrigerator. He was still peering into it when Marina came out of the baby's room. She had a diaper over her shoulder, and the binocs were good enough for me to see there was some spit-up on it.

  She spoke to him, smiling, and he turned to her. He had the fair skin that's every easy blusher's bane, and his scowling face was bright red all the way to his thinning hair. He started shouting at her, pointing a finger at the refrigerator (the door still stood open, exhaling vapor). She turned to go back into the baby's
room. He caught her by the shoulder, spun her around, and began to shake her. Her head snapped back and forth.

  I didn't want to watch this, and there was no reason I should; it added nothing to what I needed to know. He was a beater, yes, but she was going to survive him, which was more than John F. Kennedy could say . . . or Officer Tippit, for that matter. So no, I didn't need to see. But sometimes you can't look away.

  They argued it back and forth, Marina no doubt trying to explain that she didn't know how Marguerite had found them and that she'd been unable to keep "Mamochka" out of the house. And of course Lee finally hit her in the face, because he couldn't hit his ma. Even if she'd been there, he wouldn't have been able to raise a fist against her.

  Marina cried out. He let her go. She spoke to him passionately, her hands held out. He tried to take one of them and she slapped it away. Then she raised those hands to the ceiling, dropped them, and walked out the front door. Lee started to follow her, then thought better of it. The brothers had put two ratty old lawn chairs on the porch. Marina sank into one of them. There was a scrape below her left eye, and her cheek was already starting to swell. She stared out into the street, and across it. I felt a stab of guilty fear even though my living room lights were out and I knew she couldn't see me. I was careful to remain still, though, with the binoculars frozen to my face.

  Lee sat down at the kitchen table and propped his forehead on the heels of his palms. He remained that way for awhile, then heard something and went into the smaller of the bedrooms. He came out with June in his arms and began to walk her around the living room, rubbing her back, soothing her. Marina went inside. June saw her and held out her chubby arms. Marina went to them and Lee gave her the baby. Then, before she could walk away, he hugged her. She stood silently inside his arms for a moment, then shifted the baby so she could hug him back with one arm. His mouth was buried in her hair, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying: the Russian words for I'm sorry. I had no doubt that he was. He would be sorry next time, too. And the time after that.

  Marina took June back into what had been Rosette's bedroom. Lee stood where he was for a moment, then went to the fridge, took something out, and began to eat it.

  7

  Late the following day, just as Lee and Marina were sitting down to supper ( June lay on the living room floor, kicking her legs on a blanket), Marguerite came puffing down the street from the Winscott Road bus stop. This evening she was wearing blue slacks that were unfortunate, considering the generous spread of her butt. She was toting a large cloth bag. Poking out of the top was the red plastic roof of a child's playhouse. She walked up the porch steps (once more deftly avoiding the bad one) and marched in without knocking.

  I fought against the temptation to get my directional mike--this was another scene I did not need to be privy to--and lost. There's nothing so fascinating as a family argument, I think Leo Tolstoy said that. Or maybe it was Jonathan Franzen. By the time I got it plugged in and aimed through my open window at the open window across the street, the rhubarb was in full swing.

  ". . . wanted you to know where we were, I would have damn well told you!"

  "Vada told me, she's a good girl," Marguerite said placidly. Lee's rage washed over her like a light summer shower. She was unloading mismatched dishes onto the counter with the speed of a blackjack dealer. Marina was looking at her with outright amazement. The playhouse sat on the floor, next to June's baby blanket. June kicked her legs and ignored it. Of course she ignored it. What's a four-month-old going to do with a playhouse?

  "Ma, you have to leave us alone! You have to stop bringing things! I can take care of my family!"

  Marina added her two cents' worth: "Mamochka, Lee say no."

  Marguerite laughed merrily. "'Lee say no, Lee say no.' Honey, Lee always say no, this little man been doin it all his life and it doesn't mean a thing. Ma takes care of him." She pinched his cheek, the way a mother would pinch the cheek of a six-year-old after he has done something naughty but undeniably cute. If Marina had tried that, I'm sure Lee would have knocked her block off.

  At some point the jump-rope girls had drifted onto the bald excuse for a lawn. They watched the argument as attentively as Globe groundlings checking out the newest Shakespeare offering in the standing-room section. Only in the play we were watching, the shrew was going to come out on top.

  "What did she make you for dinner, honey? Was it something good?"

  "We had stew. Zharkoye. That guy Gregory sent some coupons for the ShopRite." His mouth worked. Marguerite waited. "Did you want some, Ma?"

  "Zharkoye pretty okay, Mamochka," Marina said with a hopeful smile.

  "No, I couldn't eat anything like that," Marguerite said.

  "Hell, Ma, you don't even know what it is!"

  It was as if he hadn't spoken. "It would upset my stomach. Besides, I don't want to be on a city bus after eight o'clock. There are too many drunk men on them after eight o'clock. Lee, honey, you need to fix that step before someone breaks a leg."

  He muttered something, but Marguerite's attention had moved elsewhere. She swooped down like a hawk on a fieldmouse and grabbed June. With my binoculars, the baby's startled expression was unmistakable.

  "How's my little CUTIE tonight? How's my DEAR ONE? How's my little DEVUSHKA?"

  Her little devushka, scared shitless, began to scream her head off.

  Lee made a move to take the baby. Marguerite's red lips peeled back from her teeth in what could have been a grin, but only if you wanted to be charitable. It looked more like a snarl to me. It must have to her son, too, because he stepped back. Marina was biting her lip, her eyes wide with dismay.

  "Oooo, Junie! Junie-Moonie-SPOONIE!"

  Marguerite marched back and forth across the threadbare green carpet, ignoring June's increasingly distressed wails just as she had ignored Lee's anger. Was she actually feeding on those wails? It looked that way to me. After awhile, Marina could bear it no longer. She got up and went to Marguerite, who steamed away from her, holding the baby to her breasts. Even from across the street I could imagine the sound of her big white nurse's shoes: clud-clump-clud. Marina followed her. Marguerite, perhaps feeling her point was made, at last surrendered the baby. She pointed at Lee, then spoke to Marina in her loud English instructor's voice.

  "He gained weight . . . when you were staying with me . . . because I fixed him . . . all the things he LIKES . . . but he's still TOO . . . DAMN . . . SKINNY!"

  Marina was looking at her over the top of the baby's head, her pretty eyes wide. Marguerite rolled her own, either in impatience or outright disgust, and put her face down to Marina's. The Leaning Lamp of Pisa was turned on, and the light skated across the lenses of Marguerite's cat's-eye glasses.

  "FIX HIM . . . WHAT HE'LL EAT! NO . . . SOURED . . . CREAM! NO . . . YOGRIT! HE'S . . . TOO . . . SKINNY!"

  "Skeeny," Marina said doubtfully. Safe in her mother's arms, June's weeping was winding down to watery hiccups.

  "Yes!" Marguerite said. Then she whirled to Lee. "Fix that step!"

  With that she left, only pausing to put a large smack on her granddaughter's head. When she walked back toward the bus stop, she was smiling. She looked younger.

  8

  On the morning after Marguerite brought the playhouse, I was up at six. I went to the drawn drapes and peeked out through the crack without even thinking about it--spying on the house across the street had become a habit. Marina was sitting in one of the lawn chairs, smoking a cigarette. She was wearing pink rayon pajamas that were far too big for her. She had a new black eye, and there were spots of blood on the pajama shirt. She smoked slowly, inhaling deeply and staring out at nothing.

  After awhile she went back inside and made breakfast. Pretty soon Lee came out and ate it. He didn't look at her. He read a book.

  9

  That guy Gregory sent some coupons for the ShopRite, Lee had told his mother, perhaps to explain the meat in the stew, maybe just to inform her that he and Marina weren'
t alone and friendless in Fort Worth. That appeared to have passed unnoticed by Mamochka, but it didn't pass unnoticed by me. Peter Gregory was the first link in the chain that would lead George de Mohrenschildt to Mercedes Street.

  Like de Mohrenschildt, Gregory was a Russian expat in the petroleum biz. He was originally from Siberia, and taught Russian one night a week at the Fort Worth Library. Lee discovered this and called for an appointment to ask if he, Lee, could possibly get work as a translator. Gregory gave him a test and found his Russian "passable." What Gregory was really interested in--what all the expats were interested in, Lee must have felt--was the former Marina Prusakova, a young girl from Minsk who had somehow managed to escape the clutches of the Russian bear only to wind up in those of an American boor.

  Lee didn't get the job; Gregory hired Marina instead--to give his son Paul Russian lessons. It was money the Oswalds desperately needed. It was also something else for Lee to resent. She was tutoring a rich kid twice a week while he was stuck putting together screen doors.

  The morning I observed Marina smoking on the porch, Paul Gregory, good-looking and about Marina's age, pulled up in a brand-new Buick. He knocked, and Marina--wearing heavy makeup that made me think of Bobbi Jill--opened the door. Either mindful of Lee's possessiveness or because of rules of propriety she had learned back home, she gave him his lesson on the porch. It lasted an hour and a half. June lay between them on her blanket, and when she cried, the two of them took turns holding her. It was a nice little scene, although Mr. Oswald would probably not have thought so.

  Around noon, Paul's father pulled up behind the Buick. There were two men and two women with him. They brought groceries. The elder Gregory hugged his son, then kissed Marina on the cheek (the one that wasn't swollen). There was a lot of talk in Russian. The younger Gregory was lost, but Marina was found: she lit up like a neon sign. She invited them in. Soon they were sitting in the living room, drinking iced tea and talking. Marina's hands flew like excited birds. June went from hand to hand and lap to lap.